Victory garden idea blooms again

Friday, February 6, 2009 | 10:00 a.m. CST
Julie Stern and Christo Brock pick romaine Rouge d'Hiver lettuce.

LOS ANGELES — These days, planting lettuce or beets is a political act.

Just ask Julie Stern, who shares a backyard garden with her neighbor in Topanga Canyon in western Los Angeles County.


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Or Sandra Young, who put raised beds of carrots, lettuce and beets in the front yard of her house in west Los Angeles.

Gardening, Young said, is one thing she as a citizen can do — "a step in the right direction."

During World War II, "victory gardens" planted at the behest of the federal government helped Americans cope with food shortages. (In World War I, they were called "liberty gardens.") By 1943, Americans had planted more than 20 million victory gardens and reportedly produced 8 million tons of food that one old film called "America's hidden weapon."

Now, in a fractured economic climate, a new victory-garden movement has captured the attention of people who want to lessen their reliance on mass-produced or imported food, reduce their carbon footprint, foster a sense of community or save on grocery bills.

When the National Gardening Association compiles its annual data later in January, market research director Bruce Butterfield expects to see a 10 percent rise in food gardening for 2008. Based on anecdotal evidence and trends in past recessions, he expects even stronger growth in 2009.

"People want to have more connection with their own world," said Yvonne Savio, manager of the Common Ground Garden Program for Los Angeles County-University of California Cooperative Extension, which includes a master gardener program to help people grow food. Applications, she said, have doubled in recent years.

Jimmy Williams, who runs Hayground Organic Gardening from his Los Angeles house, has 6,000 to 10,000 seedlings thriving on the roof of his garage. His business — selling seedlings and designing gardens — has quadrupled in the last year, he said.


"They're worried," Williams said. "They don't know what's going to happen."

The desire to grow food, however, crosses economic lines. Some people are struggling financially, but others prefer lettuce over lawns. Do-it-yourself types are eager for healthful food close at hand. And people see how much better food that they grow tastes.

"Even super-rich people who can afford to send people to any store anywhere — they even want gardens," Williams said.

Christy Wilhelmi, who teaches gardening at Santa Monica College, says that growing your own food is the shortest path possible from field to table, eliminating the need to transport crops, sometimes thousands of miles.

Behind her house, she gardens in eight raised beds, growing asparagus, strawberries, tomatoes and more. She would like to add chickens to eat kitchen scraps and garden pests, and provide eggs.

"It's very cyclical," said Charlie Nardozzi, senior horticulturist with the National Gardening Association based in South Burlington, Vt.

After World War II, gardening became a hobby in the 1950s and '60s. But with the "back to the land" movement of the 1970s, growing food again had serious purpose. That declined in the 1980s and '90s, but has surged again.

Seed companies have reported running out of some vegetables, and demand is higher than it's been in years, he said.

At W. Atlee Burpee & Co., sales of seeds for vegetables and herbs rose 40 percent in 2008, compared with 2007. A spokeswoman cited spikes in food and gas prices, as well as worries about food safety and interest in organic food.

In 1942, Jean-Marie Putnam and Lloyd C. Cosper's book, "Gardens for Victory," emphasized the financial savings: "Those dollars can go into the bank account, or you may patriotically transform your beet, onion and cabbage savings directly into Defense Bonds."

Today there is a confluence of concerns — a victory garden movement with a 21st century agenda, eager to involve people from the White House to the Internet to your back yard.

"It's the new call to service," said Mary Tokita, who has a plot at a community garden in Eagle Rock and is active on Los Angeles Community Garden Council.

More community gardens are opening, and rooftops are being planted in downtown Los Angeles, she said. "It's very, very heartening."

The movement has every potential to feel as urgent as the victory gardens of old, said Blair Randall, director of the Garden for the Environment, a demonstration garden in San Francisco where classes are offered in growing and composting.

"There is a greater diversity of reasons — economic, environmental, people who care about their food," he said.

Other converts can be found at community gardens, many of which were established during Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley's administration, said David King, a board member of the American Community Gardening Association. One common goal was "good, clean, wholesome food for under-served populations."

Today, community gardeners are motivated by economics as well as interest in the way food is grown, said King, who tends the 1-acre garden at Venice High School.

"There is a positive connection between putting their fingers in the soil and their own mental or spiritual well-being," he said.

The new victory garden movement still is after the brass ring: a president calling on citizens to plant food, and a first family with a garden.

Writer Michael Pollan, chef Alice Waters and others have called on the new administration to follow the example of the Franklin D. Roosevelt family by planting a food garden on the White House lawn. An online petition, organized by the group Kitchen Gardeners International, hopes to persuade President Barack Obama to plant an organic garden on "the first lawn."

"It would be so symbolic to tear up some of the lawn and put in vegetables," Nardozzi said. "It would be great."

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